KILLER CLANS (1976) is a masterful big-budget costume drama from Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio that is quite a change from the usual SB martial arts extravaganzas of the 1970s. It's closer in tone to Japanese samurai films of the 1960s and boasts a formal aesthetic beauty that was not often found in HK swordplay films. The sets are quite spectacular as are the costume design and art direction. While most of the action is shot on studio sets, there are some picturesque locations for a handful of outdoor fight scenes.
Based on a novel by famed martial arts chronicler Ku Lung, the plot has to do with clan warfare between the Lung Men Society and the power-hungry Roc Society in Old China. Various characters are not exactly what they seem as clan loyalties shift and major characters betray lifelong comrades. There are many surprising plot twists that would be best left undescribed here. Swordfights erupt every so often, although they are shorter affairs than usual for a Shaw Bros. swordplay film and place less of an emphasis on martial arts technique. The film's dramatic stress is on the interplay between the various characters and the alliances they form rather than on the action per se. The fight scenes, staged by Yuen Cheung-Yan, remain, however, consistently exciting.
The large cast includes some major players from 1970s Shaw Bros. films, most notably Ku Feng, normally a villain, but seen here as the durable and crafty head of Lung Men, whose survival efforts are quite impressive. His character is clearly the dominant one and his performance outshines those of the two younger male leads, Chung Wa, who plays a freelance swordsman whose loyalties become a major issue as the film proceeds, and Yueh Hua, who plays Ku Feng's second-in-command. Other familiar performers are on hand and are seen to good effect, including Wang Chung, Lo Lieh, Yeung Chi Hing, Norman Chu, future star Danny Lee (CITY ON FIRE), and actresses Li Ching and Chan Ping (as a lusty femme fatale who disrobes for some surprising nude scenes). The portly Fan Mei Sheng, usually seen in comic supporting roles, plays a family man who is at the center of a moving, intense scene late in the film that is truly one of the film's dramatic highlights.
The novel that formed the basis for this film was later adapted for the wire-fu swordplay hit, COMET BUTTERFLY AND SWORD (1993), which starred Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Donnie Yen and Joey Wang. Of the four main characters of the later film, only Tony Leung's character is given significant screen time in KILLER CLANS, where he is played, rather stiffly, by Chung Wa. Michelle Yeoh's character in the earlier film is the aforementioned clothes-dropping femme fatale played by Chan Ping. The comparatively modest swordplay of KILLER CLANS gives way to high-flying "wire-fu" in the later film.
KILLER CLANS was directed by veteran filmmaker Chor Yuen (SACRED KNIVES OF VENGEANCE, IRON CHAIN FIGHTER), who displays an assured and restrained touch that's quite a departure from the more frenetic direction found in the Shaw Bros. martial arts films directed by Chang Cheh (FIVE MASTERS OF DEATH, BLOODY AVENGERS). For one thing, there's not a zoom lens in sight! The director also avoids the more theatrical, Chinese Opera-style staging found in the films of his contemporary, King Hu (A TOUCH OF ZEN). While Chang Cheh's films tended to be less demanding and more entertaining, KILLER CLANS is ultimately a richer, deeper film and more satisfying on a dramatic and artistic level.
As one of the first batch of ten Shaw Bros. releases newly restored and issued on DVD, KILLER CLANS is now available in a beautiful, breathtaking widescreen transfer, in Mandarin (not Cantonese) with English subtitles, that should be seen by any and all Hong Kong film fans. (Other releases in the first ten include King Hu's COME DRINK WITH ME and Chang Cheh's THE HEROIC ONES, both equally recommended.)